In 2012, I lived and worked with 72 orphaned girls at Our Little Roses, the only all-girl orphanage in Honduras, in San Pedro Sula, the current murder capital of the world.
Girls have often been discounted in Honduras, sadly. Twenty-five years before the founding of OLR, abandoned girls were sent to the state penitentiary for the inmates to “look after.” A judge, opposed to the founding of the home in its early days, said to the founder: “If you open this home, where will we get our maids and prostitutes?”
I came to OLR accidentally. Several years ago, working in Hartford Hospital as a chaplain, I met many patients who did not speak English. One night, a Puerto Rican boy and his mother entered the emergency room. The son was seventeen and had been stabbed in the chest several times. They worked on the boy all night. At dawn, he died. I was unable to speak to the mother in Spanish, and stood there, dressed as a priest, feeling useless. The next day I contacted my bishop in Miami and said I needed to learn Spanish. He told me about an orphanage in San Pedro Sula. I said, “Where is that?”
The girls beguiled me. After my first visit of only two months, a girl turned to me as I was leaving and said, “Don’t forget us.” Those three words, I wanted to honor them.
I applied to the Fulbright with the idea to return and write my own poems, and lost. I was ordained in Madrid, lived there a year, and learned more Spanish. The second year I applied again, only this time I thought: No, it isn’t about me, it is about the girls writing their own poems, it is about me teaching them. I was accepted.
I came up with bizarre methods for teaching poetry. Textbooks seemed to kill the energy in class and so we dropped those books, heavy as bowling balls, on the floor never to pick them up again. What worked was me saying the poems to the girls. What worked was memorizing them.
One day while I was trying to figure out how to teach the students meter, I heard the sounds of salsa out the window. I asked my students how many beats were in salsa. Four, they said, usually. I said, “Perfect.” So it came about that my students danced and recited Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody – Who Are you?” with a salsa machine in chapel.
At the same time, a documentary film was made. I invited the film crew because I thought a poetry book alone wouldn’t honor the girls enough: it had to be bigger, louder, more of a jolt. James Franco signed on to executive produce. Dar Williams signed on to make the music.
I’m putting the anthology together now. In March, Richard Blanco will co-edit it with me at his house in Bethel. Both book and film will come into the world in 2015. I feel like the most unlikely advocate for the schoolchildren of San Pedro Sula, but I cannot forget them, you see.
02.15.14 by Spencer Reece